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Pearl Bryan: Chapter nine

By Paul Slade
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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Cyndi Mendell lived very near the Lock farmhouse when she was a child, and the farmhouse itself is only about 200 yards from the spot where Pearl was killed. But it wasn't the Pearl Bryan case that made Cyndi determined to buy that house for herself one day.
"I lived right down the street, and I told my mom: 'One day, I'm going to own that house'," she told me during my 2010 trip to Fort Thomas. "I was just drawn to this house. I don't know why, but I've really liked it since I was six years old." The opportunity to buy it came in the mid-to-late seventies, and she and John jumped in straight away. At that point, they knew nothing about Pearl's story, and the seller was quite content to keep it that way. "She didn't tell us anything about it till we finally signed the deal," John said. "That's when she started telling us the story of the place, and that's when I started looking into it."
We were talking round John and Cyndi's kitchen table, in the old Lock farmhouse they now own, where John had brought me after showing me the murder spot. I asked them if the seller's revelations about their new house's history had made them regret buying it. "I didn't care," Cyndi replied instantly. "I just wanted the house."
"For, me it was just an added attraction," John said. "Something we can talk about, you know? When I bought this place, one woman come by - an older lady, 75, 80 years old - and she said 'You know the story of this place?' I said: 'Yeah, I know the story'. And she says: 'Well, when those people was hung, I was there'. She said her grandfather had taken her there in a baby carriage. It was quite a circus."
John began reading everything he could find on the case, and questioned any of his neighbours he thought could help. "I checked around, and I talked to a few older people who were very atuned to the story," he said. "They told me that the county was still holding Pearl's bag and the scaffolding for the gallows in the courthouse. I said: 'Oh, you're kidding me! They still got that?'"

'I'm not bringing the valise back till I know you'll put it in a glass case and it'll be preserved.'

As recently as 1965, Campbell County had kept the valise stored in a lockbox at the court clerk's office in Newport. "The valise is occasionally taken from its storage place when student groups visit the courthouse seeking information about how courts operate," the CE's Charles Etsinger reported in September that year. "It is then displayed to curious eyes as a one-tine exhibit in a most celebrated murder case."
Kentucky historians were already campaigning for the valise to be given a permanent display at one of Newport's museums, but so far they'd had no luck. John decided to see if a more informal approach might work, so he picked up the phone and called the courthouse. The clerk confirmed the bag was there but, when John went to visit, he was appalled. "It was just thrown in the corner with a big pile of stuff," he told me, shaking his head at the recollection.
"I said: 'I'm giving a talk at the library here, then I'm giving a talk at the historical society. Would it be possible I could sign the bag out and give it back to you when I'm done?' I was friends with the County Clerk at the time, and he said: 'That's fine'."
John signed the bag out with a handful of other Pearl Bryan material and gave his talks. The bag was a big hit with everyone he showed it to, and when all the talks were finished, he returned everything as promised.
"Then, a short time later, I go to check it out again," he said. "And the bag was there, but some of the documentation of the trial was not there. The death warrants were not there, the appeals notice was not there. I told them: 'Gosh, you guys got to protect this stuff - this is history.' They said: 'Well, OK, OK,' and they put it back in this corner.
"I checked it out for another talk, and there was even less there. So I'm not giving it back: 'I'm not giving it back till you promise to take care of it!' And they said: 'No, no, no - you have to bring it back'. They called me four, five times and said: 'You need to bring it back'. I said: 'I'm not going to bring it back till I get a guarantee that you'll put the valise in a glass case, and it'll be preserved'."
Fearing this stand-off might last for a while, Cyndi slipped the valise carefully into a paper sack, and stored it in a drawer of her antique china cabinet outside Fort Thomas at the couple's ranch. "I think we had it for two years," she said. "At least I knew where it was."
Once in a while, John and Cyndi would smuggle the valise back to Fort Thomas and show it to their dinner guests. One evening, those guests happened to include a local doctor. "We had a meeting of the historical society here, and he was a member," John recalled. "I said: 'Doctor, come look at this'. He looked at it and said: 'Yes, those are bloodstains. Those are definite bloodstains'." Cyndi slapped the wood in front of her. "That was here, on this table," she laughed.
I couldn't resist it. "Not to be too morbid," I began gingerly, "but was the lining soaked in blood, was it just a few spots, or..." Cyndi answered before I could even complete the question. "I would say big spots," she replied. "All blood at the bottom but, where the sides would go up, it had big blotches."
"And there was hairs in it," John added. "We don't know if that was Pearl Bryan's hair or hair that accumulated over the years, but there was actually hairs in the little catches there."

They also die who only stand and watch

It's bad enough that Pearl's murderer robbed an innocent young woman of her life, but his actions brought other casualties too. Among the collateral damage was:

* The druggist at Koeble's, who later identified Jackson as the man who'd bought cocaine from him.
    This luckless fellow was eventually driven mad by the unwanted celebrity his testimony brought.
    "[He] was questioned by so many people who had nothing to do with the case that he imagined himself part of the crime," Carothers writes.
    "He broke down, and it was many months before he regained his health. In the meantime, his business dwindled down to almost nothing, and his store was finally closed forever."

* Thomas Hawkins, a wealthy young farmer living near the Kentucky town of Independence, hanged himself there on February 20, 1896.
    "He went crazy from reading the accounts of the Pearl Bryan murder case." Maysville's Public Ledger explained two days later.

* Mabel Stanley, Pearl's sister. Greencastle folklore relates that Mabel eventually committed suicide because of her sister's killing. I've no idea if this has any basis in fact, however.